Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hung Shao Yuen Ti


Although I've watched my MIL 'red cook' many pork dishes, I can't quite get them as good as her. Other than not being Shanghainese, who are the best at hung shao ('red cooking', slow braising of meat with soy sauces and spices), I also lack patience. MIL's hung shao yuen ti ('red cooked' pork hock) is not braised but steamed and anyone who has cooked a whole pork hock knows that it takes about 2 hours to tenderize the meat by braising and upto 4 hours by steaming. The hock has to be so tender that it jiggles on the serving plate but still remains intact. This is a dish that is is served during special occasions such as birthday dinners or festivals.

We rarely order this dish in our local restaurants because the few times that we did, we were disappointed. None of them came half as close to MIL's yuen ti. Two things make a fantastic yuen ti: 1) the seasoning ingredients used, the most crucial being the right brands of soy sauces  2) the way the yuen ti is cooked. Many restaurants cook their yuen ti in pressure cookers which don't give the same flavor as yuen ti braised or steamed slowly. Slow cooking such as braising and steaming allow the soy sauces and spices to be imbibed by the pork. Steaming the yuen ti not only gets the pork hock all soft and tasty, it also leaves the skin smooth. Braising the hock can cause damage to the skin from the frequent stirring needed to prevent it from getting scorched and stuck to the pot. The hock also risks getting cut up during stirring especially when it becomes tender. Another difference is that MIL marinades the hocks for at least three days prior to cooking. Which restaurant will do that? Oh, make it three: experience in cooking yuen ti will be the most important criteria for making not a good yuen ti but an extraordinarily fantastic yuen ti.

This hung shao yuan ti was made by my MIL for CNY in February and frozen until now. Because it takes so much time and work to cook yuen ti, MIL makes about 4 to 6 each time and freezes the leftovers. Her strict instructions on re-heating the yuen ti was to steam it until it is heated through and thicken the sauce by reducing it over fire. Guess what I did. Yup, don't tell her, I reheated it by boiling. I  reduced the sauce but also used a corn starch water mixture so that I get more sauce.

This is a dish for those who don't mind stirring or checking the steamer half a day in the kitchen. Me, I'd rather play the good DIL and get my yuen ti from my MIL.

It rained yesterday for the first time in months as I harvested the last crop of kai lan for the hung shao yuen ti. Rain means I can grow more veg again.

Hung Shao Yuen Ti

2 pork hocks, deboned
2-3 thin pieces ginger, bruised or crushed with a cleaver
2 star anise
1 T minced garlic
1 T light soy sauce
4 T dark soy sauce*
1 t salt
2 T castor sugar
4-5 T shao xin wine
some white pepper

*The best yuen ti MIL made was with a dark soy sauce from Singapore, "Da Wah" brand. The amount of ingredients here are estimates only because MIL cooked yuen ti in bulk. The taste can be adjusted later.

1. Mix all the marinade ingredients in a deep bowl (big enough to hold the two hocks) until the sugar has dissolved. Place the hocks inside and coat with the marinade sauce. Cover bowl with cling wrap and leave in fridge for at least 3 days. Once in a while, turn the hocks to make sure they get well marinaded.

2. Heat up the steamer. At this point, MIL removes the ginger and anise but I think it's okay to leave them in. Steam the pork with the marinade sauce until the hocks are tender, about 3-4 hours.

When cool, the hocks can be frozen.

To serve, you can either re-steam the hocks or cook it gently in a pot. I prefer the later because the pork skin will go gloriously darker and also at this point, I season the sauce to taste with more sugar or salt or wine. Remove the hock to a deep serving plate with a bed of blanched greens such as kai lan or choy sum. Turn up the heat and reduce the sauce until it is thickened**. Pour over the hocks. Serve hot with plenty of rice. USe kitchen scissors to snip the hock into smaller pieces.

**If you want more sauce or if the sauce is too salty, add a bit of water to the reduced sauce and thicken with a corn starch and water mixture.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Taking A Short Break

I'm coming clean. I've been having groggy days (pulsating eyebags, feverish head--signs of very late nights) because I've been watching Korean TV soap dramas. It started last week when a friend lent me a few sets of Korean TV drama VCDs. I fast-forwarded the first disc (I can't stand long-drawn dramatic episodes) but it still took me 4 hours to finish! Do people who watch these things have a life?! Ahem. Of course by that time, I got hooked on the story--revenge, transformation & rise of a dowdy housewife (every scorned woman's fantasy) on her husband, mistress and his awful parents--and I can't wait to finish all 8 discs. I'm at disc no. 5, still fast-forwarding half the time but not as much because the discs freeze after too much fast-forwarding. I hope I haven't spoilt them. Anyway, we've been eating out a lot because of dinner invitations and I promise I'll be back  once I get through the discs. I still have two other sets of VCDs but I think I'll return  them unwatched. I have to claim my life back...Meantime, here's a joke I received in my mail:

men advice

Monday, March 22, 2010

Jin Dui (Sesame Balls)


Jin dui are made of glutinous rice flour and filled with either lotus, red bean or peanut paste. A coating of sesame seeds makes jin dui burst with sesame flavor while the glu rice dough gives a chewy sticky bite. At the wet market and breakfast stalls, jin dui can be bigger than a large egg  but in dim sum restaurants, jin dui are elegantly dainty, slightly smaller than golf balls. 

 I found two jin dui recipes in my cookbooks and tried them out.The recipe that failed was surprisingly from Agnes Chang's  Delightful Snacks & Dim Sum. Choong Su Yin's Dim Sum Inspirations (a book that I bought a couple of months back that is very much flipped through but never put to use) jin dui recipe was more complicated while Agnes' recipe was everything into the bowl at once. But the biggest difference was Agnes' recipe included baking soda while Choong's recipe did not. I fried the jin dui made with both recipes in the same wok and by the time the jin dui were done, Agnes' jin dui  were very puffed and bald while the jin dui made with Choong's recipe puffed a little with about 40-50% of the sesame seeds still stuck to the balls.  Agnes' jin dui were very soft, glutinously stringy and collapsed after cooling. Choong's jin dui were a little too hard and stayed perfectly round even after 4 hours.  I left some unfried jin dui in the fridge and fried them today (3 days later) for the blog photos and the balls deflated pretty quickly even though they were from the same batch of dough. It may have something to do with the dough having rested.


The bald jin dui puffed and lost most of the sesame seeds coating. They are more golden in color because mashed sweet potato was added.They also deflated as they cooled.

I tried Choong's recipe a second time and this time, after coating the glutinous balls with sesame seeds, I pressed the seeds on firmly by rolling the jin dui between my palms. That turned out to be the trick to make the sesame seeds stick to the jin dui during frying. But the texture of the jin dui was still too firm. As I write this post and looked at Choong's recipe again, I realize that I made a mistake both times that I made Choong's jin dui. Instead of using about 1/3 of the cooked wheat starch dough, I had used the whole amount. For the recipe below, I've made the adjustment to make it clearer. With Choong's recipe, you'd have leftover cooked wheat starch  which is what caused my confusion.

Wey--again, right to the bull's eye--had a couple of my jin dui and said they were so oily that he felt slightly sick. It's hard not to come up with oily jin dui because jin dui have to be fried in medium low heat to avoid them from puffing too much and also from burning the sesame seeds before they are cooked through.

I've reduced the amount of sugar and used oil instead of margarine. I've also changed the instructions on making the wheat starch dough so that there won't be leftover dough. However, if the amount of the flours is too small for your conventional kitchen scale (as mine is), you will have to do what Choong instructed--make more and keep the extra "for further use".

Jin dui in dim sum restaurants are usually snipped so they can be shared. These jin dui would've tasted better if they had thinner walls.

Jin Dui Sesame Seeds Balls
300 g glutinous rice flour
40g cooked wheat dough
1 1/2 T veg oil
30g sugar (original amount was 75 g)
220 ml water (warm)

Cooked Wheat Dough
13g wheat starch (I would conveniently up this to 15g)
7g glutinous rice flour (n this to 10g)
20g or ml boiling water (n a few drops more)

Filling: 300g lotus or red bean paste or peanut butter
Coating: 200g uncooked sesame seeds

1. Mix the wheat starch and the glu rice flour with the  boiling water and cover for about 3-5 minutes. Knead/stir until smooth.

2. Dissolve the sugar in the water, add the glu rice flour and mix with a fork. Add the cooked wheat starch and oil and knead into a soft, smooth dough. If the dough is dry, add a little bit (by the 1/2 teaspoon) of water.

3. Roll the dough into a long strip and break off into 30 small pieces. Roll each piece of dough and flatten into a circle with your fingers. Put a small teaspoon (not too much or jin dui'll be too sweet) of filling and seal up the ball, rolling in your palms to smoothen the surface.

4. Dip each sesame ball into water and then into the sesame seeds (use a different hand of each action so you don't get messy sesame seeds-covered fingers. I use a spoon to coat the seame seeds). Take each sesame ball and roll it firmly in your place to press the seeds onto the surface.

5. Heat plenty of oil (enough to cover the balls) in a wok or pot and when it just begins to get hot, lower the heat and gently place 6 balls (depending on the amount of oil) into the oil to cook gently. After about 3 minutes, increase the heat to medium high. If there's plenty of oil in the pot, the balls'll float when cooked through. Remove when the balls are lightly golden and drain on paper towels.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

La Rou With Celery


Lily is here from Jiangxi and brought me some la mei--Chinese sausages called la chang and 'bacon' called la rou-- that her mom made last winter. I steamed some of each and they were just fabulous! I even eat all the fat. Leaving the fat out would be like eating a cake without the frosting. One thin slice of sausage on one chopstickful of rice. Repeat. And repeat. Heavenly, really heavenly. The flavor is unlike store-bought la mei and the xien (savory sweetness) taste is crazy tasty.

Home-made Chinese sausages and bacon are totally different from store-bought ones in looks, flavor, texture and taste. Each region in China, each family even, has its own recipe and the variations in taste and flavor make every link of la chang and piece of la rou exciting and satisfying. I think the superiority in taste of home-made cured meat is because the meat is specially chosen and cured naturally in the winter wind and not in a temperature-controlled factory.

La rou is often stir-fried with vegetables for a very simple dish. I found that on my last visit to China in December last year. The greens, usually those with a crunch to complement the bite in the meat, pick up the oil and flavor from the la rou while the la rou intensifies in taste and flavor after frying. A dish of la rou and greens with a bowl of white rice satisfies the most fussy tastebuds, even those of my son Wey. Before the Guilin trip, Wey wouldn't touch la rou but now he constantly bugs me for Lily's la rou. I'd love to get the recipe for making la mei so that those of you in the southern hemisphere who are going into winter now can make some.

The Cantonese like to blend fried ingredients together with a seasoned cornstarch and water mixture but for this dish, I prefer to leave out the cornstarch for a more crispy, refreshing taste or what the Chinese call 'mouth feel'. If you can't get good la rou, maybe you can use a good bacon which is still better than the hard blackish waxy commercial la rou that we get here. Other than celery, you can use kai lan stems or other crunchy veggies. Cut the meat and the veggies about the same size and shape. That means if your la rou is in strips, cut your veggies in strips too. Btw, I don't string my celery stalks anymore so that the fiber remains but if you prefer the celery to be tender, you can do that. I generally don't peel my root veggies anymore. I don't even peel my carrots when I bake carrot cake. If you think about it, why do we peel carrots? Or radish or cucumbers or eggplant?

Correction: I ate a lovely celery and scallops stir fry today (26/3/10) and the celery was very tender and there were no hard fibers. The celery was not only stringed, it was peeled smooth. I'm now convinced that for stir fries, you have to peel the celery.


La Rou With Celery
2 large stalks celery, sliced thinly
3/4 cup thinly sliced la mei or either la rou or la chang
1/4 t sugar
2 T chicken broth
1/8 t salt

1. Fry the la rou without oil in a wok over medum fire. When the la rou is golden, about 5 minutes or more, remove to a plate.

2. Add the celery to the same wok which now has some oil from the la rou. Add the salt and sugar and fry for a minute. Add the broth and toss, then cover with a wok lid for about 30 seconds. The broth acts to blend the flavors of the two ingredients and also cooks the celery (adding water quickens the cooking).

3. Remove the lid and toss. Taste and season if necessary but remember that the la rou is salty. Add the la rou, tossing well for about 20-30 seconds. If necessary, add another tablespoon of broth. When the liquid has dried up some (not too much or too little), remove onto a serving plate. Serve with hot rice.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

MIL's Classic Potato Salad


With all the fancy recipes for potato salads, I never considered posting this recipe because I thought it too old-fashioned. But each time I eat it, which is during CNY when MIL's friends Aunties Lu & Chin always serve the dish, I am reminded that outstanding recipes will always stand the test of time.

My MIL and her two best friends have been making the same potato salad for as long as I know them and I was surprised to learn that one of the ingredients is sweet gherkins, something not easily available here and certainly not what I expected Chinese ladies of an older generation would include in a recipe. They cannot remember where the recipe is from and I can only guess, since these ladies mix in a social circle of people from the Zhejiang area (mid eastern coastal part of China that covers cities such as Ningpo, Hangzhou, Shanghai & more) ,that the recipe must've been handed down from some expat in the early days of pre-communist China when westerners abound in Zhejiang. For the salad in these photos, I used dill pickles because I couldn't find sweet gherkins. MIL and her friends omit the gherkins now since it's too bothersome to find but I highly recommend that you include them if you can. In place of gherkins, Aunty Lu adds chopped canned pineapple and that substitutes beautifully the the tang and the sweetness of sweet gherkins. Peas are also one of the ingredients but I omit them because my son Wey hates peas.

The mayo is very important. Hellman's mayo was rated by Cook's Illustrated as the best mayo in the US so I brought 2 large bottles back on my previous trip to Singapore. I was disappointed because the mayo seemed to be too thin (it even looked translucent) and lacked creaminess. Wey is a die-hard Japanese Kewpie mayo lover. I love Miracle Whip and thought everybody does too so when my dear friend CY in the US wouldn't touch it, I doubted my judgement of a good mayo and have been searching for a better one ever since. I still haven't found it so Miracle Whip is still my favorite. Can I hear from readers what their favorite mayo is? We don't get many choices here and I'm crazy enough to carry them in my lugguage.

It hasn't rained a drop since the last rain in December and my raintrees have gone bald. The smell of smoke and rustle of dry leaves are everywhere. This is the first drought in years. I find this potato salad very appropriate for this weather. Make it early and leave it to chill in the fridge. Serve with a meat or seafood and a leaf salad and it's a lovely summer meal.


MIL's Classic Potato Salad
1 kg (preferably new) potatoes
4-5 eggs, hard boiled n cut into cubes
2 large apples, in cubes
1 large carrot or a stalk of celery or both, diced or in small cubes or peas
4 sweet gherkins (or canned pineapple or golden raisins), chopped finely
salt & pepper

note: cut the main ingredients about the same size, about 1.5 cm.

1. If the potoatoes are new, I like to leave the skin on. Cut into cubes and boil in salted water until just tender. Drain and let cool.

Do same with carrots if using.

2.Make sure everything is cool. Mix all the ingredients (except the eggs) in a bowl. Taste and adjust with the mayo. Now add the eggs and give the salad a light toss. This is to reduce crumbling of the eggs. Chill for at least 3-4 hours.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Ginger Spring Onion Clams


Simple is best when it comes to cooking fresh ingredients and one of the best ways to fry clams is with ginger and spring onions. Although simple, I have tried cooking this dish at home but never quite got it right. So a few nights ago I went to a seafood restaurant before peak hours and asked the cook if I could watch while he cooked my clams. He was too polite to shoo me away. I made sure not get in his way and stood across the island with his workers running around, probably wondering why I was allowed to stand there.

What I've learnt about frying clams is that you first have to parboil them until they open just a little. This is to make sure that they all open and that you won't get a clamful of sand. It also makes it easier to remove the half of the shell without meat, for presentation. Another must is a very hot wok, so hot that the flames dance around the rim of the wok and cook the clams in a few minutes without sweating the juices out. This is hard to do at home unless you have an outdoor kitchen, which I have, and a burner that can heat up so intensely that it roars, which I don't have.

The cook worked real quick, spooning equal amount of two types of white substances into his big ladle. He confirmed that these were sugar and msg. Salt is not added because the clams are briny from the sea. You can omit the msg but the taste won't be the same as the restaurant's. The cook said there's no need to add cornstarch and water because as the clams cool, the natural juices, which are a little bit creamy, will come out. However, I think that you can add a thin cornstarch and chicken stock or water mixture towards the last minute of frying if you want more sauce.

There are many types of clams and the best clams for this dish are of course the meaty not too small or big ones. Btw, Cook said that you can break the clams open, top with some garlic and wine and steam them for 3 minutes only. There's no need to parboil them. Try it out and tell me.

Ginger spring onion clams on the half shell.

Ginger Spring Onion Clams

1 kg medium-sized clams
8 to 10 thin slices of fresh ginger
a small handful of spring onions
1/4 t sugar
a few shakes of msg (substitute with 1/4 t chicken stock powder)
1-2 T of Chinese white rice wine
1 T chicken broth or water
3-4 T oil

1. Boil some water and add the clams. When the water boils again, scoop or drain the clams into a bowl. The clams should be slightly opened. Too opened and the meat'll fall out. Add enough room temp water to the bowl to cover the clams and break the hinge of the clam. Throw away the valve where the meat is not attached, keeping the valve with meat back in the same bowl. I think this is to wash the clams of any sand. Do same with all the clams.

2. Heat up the wok and add the oil and the ginger slices. When oil is hot, drain away the water from the clams and throw the clams into the wok. Stir a few seconds, then cover for 40 seconds or so depending on the heat. Add the sugar and msg. Stirring all the time, drizzle in the wine, then the chicken broth and add the spring onions. The cook probably took less than 3 minutes to fry the dish but the heat was very intense.

You can mix 1/2 T cornstarch and 2 T water or chicken stock, add it to the clams and heat through (or the sauce'll taste floury) before dishing out, if you want more sauce but Cook doesn't do this.

Dish onto a serving plate and serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bao Hao Sao (Full, Well, Little)

My daughter posted on recent calls by several food experts to change the way we eat. I watched the first video clip of Mark Bittman urging a healthier diet and didn't watch Jamie Oliver's message because it took too long to download. Someone commented on it though so I watched it and am very inspired by his call to change our eating style. Jamie is enjoyable to watch because he's always natural and passionate about what he believes in. His tipping a whole wheelbarrow of sugar onto the center of the stage to show the amount of sugar in the milk a child would have eaten in 5 years of primary school was dramatic and shocking. And that's only the sugar from milk, not the milky bars or chocolates or ice creams or juices or cakes or doughnuts or Coke.

The message is the same whether it's Jamie O or Mark Bittman : obesity is killing people, we need to change the way we eat and one of the most effective ways is to teach the young before it's too late. We need to go back to simple, local produce, non-processed food, less meat more veggies and home cooking. Besides the health considerations, we need to help lighten the burden to the earth of feeding 6 billion + people. I know that I can do my part by influencing my family on how to eat healthy by starting immediately. I'd like to share with you the changes I've made:

1) Cook more, eat out less. Now that we're down to 4 (Hub, my youngest child, my mom and I), it's cheaper to eat out. It's so easy to eat out here. For simple meals, we don't have to eat at fancy restaurants. Our equivalent of Denny's would be the Beaufort and Man Tai restaurants where a cheap meal for a family of four would cost less than RM50/US$14, half of that if you keep to a plate of noodles each. Eating out at such restaurants is cheaper than cooking at home. And you don't have to set the table, wash the dishes and holler for the kid to come to the table.

Eating out has far more cons than pros for me. I was just talking to a restaurant cook last night (I went for a late night snack of ginger and spring onions clams. I watched him cook and will share the recipe). Cook said he'd rather eat at home. The reasons were "a cook's revulsion" at the unhygenic conditions in the kitchens he'd worked in. That was a shocking statement from a cook but he was honest. And it was ironic because I had watched his worker prepare my clams and I was revulsed. He said there are three things he'll never order from a restaurant: 1) Quick soups. He started out as a waiter in the 70s and he'd seen a cook's assistant fish out a rat that fell into the stock pot, which is usually brewed all day and night. Better to fish the rat out than tell the cook who'll kill him for not watching the soup. Stewed soups are safer bets because they are stewed fresh daily 2) Veggies. The most they do is give the veggies a hose down. Think pesticides, manure, spit, bugs. 3) Claypots and iron hot plates. If you are unlucky and you get the pot at the bottom, which hasn't been used for weeks, don't think the roachy stink is your imagination. Rust on iron plates are never washed, they just burn it off. Just three? I can give him 300 reasons.

The oil used in restaurants is cheap oil and 'recycled' oil from deep fryers of KFC and other fast food joints. Unless they are hotel and higher-end restaurants, most restaurants will use cheap ingredients loaded with preservatives, artificial flavorings and colors. So don't think that msg is the worst thing you get in restaurant food. You are slowly and surely poisoned by all those inferior substitutes and additives.

Bottomline: restaurants are there to make money, not to fed you with healthy food. Also, SE Asia is generaly filthy, except for Singapore. Look at our restaurant workers. All are from neighboring countries like Myanmar, Indonesia and Thailand and they are lowly educated which means they very likely don't know that they must wash their hands after they pooped. That's how E.coli is transmitted.

On a food program recently, it was estimated that 8 to 9 out of 10 (something like that) families in Hong Kong do not cook at home, their kitchens being too small, shopping and cooking take up to much precious time, restaurants being 'downstairs' and everywhere and their food, well, it is Hong Kong we are talking about. My last word on eating out is "Your body is what you feed it".

2) Cut out carbs at dinner. In the last 3 months, I've changed my dinners by nearly cutting out all starch. We eat carbs in the day, when we are active. My mom, who's diabetic, woke up one morning with hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). The night before I had made wholemeal chapattis (Indian flatbread) and allowed her one only and withheld her usual serving of 3 to 4 tablespoons brown n white mixed rice. Cutting back on a small amount of refined carbs made such a big difference to her sugar level that I now cut down her starch intake to 2 tablespoons of rice at dinner time and make up for it with more veggies and meat. I've lost 1.5 kgs in three months by cutting out carbs at dinner time and eating less through the day. Slow, but the mountain is moving.

Initially it was hard not to eat carbs at dinner, especially when we eat Chinese dishes, but we soon got used to it. Like any habit, it can be broken. You just need to believe it and not give up.

3) Cut back on snacks, in particular sweet things. And that means I never eat a piece of cake unless it's a birthday cake. I reduce the sugar in any recipe that calls for it. I don't take sugar with coffee or tea. And I never have candies or sweets in my house. What are they for anyway? I do, however, struggle with chocolates.

My mom, who dislikes sweet things, became diabetic in her 60s despite seldom eating anything sweet. She was, however, big as a barrel in her 40s. The diet of the new generation is far more sweeter than the old. When I was little, the only time I could have a Coke was during CNY. Cakes were only available in my teens. But look at our kids and how young they start eating sugar and how much sugar they are eating. And salt and oil and carbs. And additives, hormones, pesticides and antibiotics-laden food.

4) Eat lots of colorful veggies. I have two reluctant veggie-eaters at home. I have to apportion and threaten until my face is black before they eat their veg. Slowly, they are eating more veggies than before. Genetics aside, I always tell young people that if they don't want to be midgets, they must eat their veggies and their protein. Sadly, I see a lot of girls as young as 12 going on a diet. That's exactly when they should eat to grow tall and shapely.

Children in Malaysia especially are getting a lousy deal in school canteens. When Wey was in primary school, he was addicted to fried chicken wings. I visited Chung Hwa Primary School in Likas one lunch and was shocked to find that nearly every item they served in the canteen stalls were processed and deep-fried: deep-fried wontons, deep-fried fish balls, deep-fried wings, deep-fried sausages, deep-fried bananas, deep-fried potatoes. Add to that fizzy drinks of all flavors and colors and iced water, also flavored and colored. I bet they are still serving the same things now. I am so impressed with Jamie Oliver's success at changing the meals in British schools, especially his introduction of a salad bar.

There are mothers, especially those who make bentos, who understand nutrition and make an effort to raise healthy kids. I applaud them. However, I think bentos only work with daughters. My daughter once said, when she saw a photo of a beautiful colorful bento box of slices of heart-shaped apples and other dainty finger food, that she knows her brothers will starve rather than take bentos to school. And she's right because she was the only one who would eat the tiffin lunches I made. My boys pretended not to know me when I walked into their school with tiffin boxes and I gave up bringing lunches for them. And maybe that's why men are usually less healthy than women. They are too busy working and behaving macho and know little about health and nutrition.

5) Eat less but well, if you are not very active and if you have reached adulthood. Most people eat a heavy breakfast, a sizable lunch and a big dinner. I think that when you are no longer growing (meaning anyone over 20), you should change eating habits by eating a decent breakfast or lunch, or brunch, and a light dinner with no carbs. I fully support eating like 'a king for breakfast, a prince for lunch and a pauper for dinner', or in China, eating 'bao (full) for breakfast, hao (well) for lunch and sao (little) for dinner'. Because dinner is the main meal where the whole family comes together to eat a good home-cooked meal after a day of eating commercial rubbish, it is hard not to cook a big dinner. I suppose it works for us because there's only one growing child in the family. Now we eat smaller and simpler meals everyday but on Saturdays, when we eat at my in-laws, it's always a feast. There are so many festivals and special dinners through the year that we get enough feasts in between the smaller meals.

Just look at the Biggest Losers. It's not nice, but really, do you find fat people in Africa?

6) Educate your family about nutrition, teach your kids to cook. I don't think giant food companies will make any changes with our health in mind. We have to educate ourselves and our family on what, how, why, if, because, regarding our choices of food and eating habits.

In secondary school, one subject I took was home science. Home science was where we learnt nutrition and simple baking and cooking. Now students have 10 subjects and home science has been dropped. If I were the Education Minister, I'd cut out history and include home skills. History can be learnt in the lower secondary years. I'd do that because my motive is to bring up a healthier generation, not brainwash kids about our historic heroes.

Change now, not when you are diabetic, hypertensive, old, obese or half-blind. If you still haven't watched Jamie's clip, please do so and after you do, please make the changes, starting with yourself and your family.

Update: I do not mean to de-mean any nationality or limit their potential. In point 1 above, I should have included Malaysians too among the unhygenic kitchen workers, or more tactfully, leave out nationalities because my point is not the nationality but the standard of hygiene, which is dependent on not so much as nationality but the level of education, awareness, culture etc. Meaning to say any country can have clean and dirty people, but in general poorer countries are lacking in many hygenic practices. Am I opening up another Pandora Box? What I'm complaining about is the general unhygenic conditions of restaurants in most SE Asian countries and the situation can change as people become more educated. Customers should speak up against such conditions and act against them by not eating at dirty places. Sad to say, it is common to see workers spitting, wiping leftovers onto floors, bring your bowl of noodles with their thumbs half-soaked in the soup and cooks touching food directly without using tongs or gloves . My major peeve: nearly all coffee shops do not even have a sink next to their stall for washing hands. The cook'll be sitting down in between breaks and when needed, he'll get up and start cooking with those hands which were touching his toes, his nose, his teeth, his crotch, the chairs, just before you walked in.

Monday, March 8, 2010

White-Chopped Chicken


White chopped chicken, the most common way to cook a good chicken, Cantonese-style.

(Update: I had an interesting conversation with a Chinese cook 9/3/10 on cooking white chopped chicken and he insisted that the boiled chicken must be fully dunked into a bucket of room temp water until it sinks--apparently the chicken floats after it is boiled--which takes about 10 minues. This method is widely practised in Malaysia and Singapore and I'm not sure if they do this in Hong Kong and southern China. My mom, who's from southern China and had lived in Hong Kong for years never dunked her boiled chicken in water.)

I am almost embarassed to post this but I know there is a handful of mostly young people who have no idea how to cook this most popular and common Chinese chicken home dish. White chopped chicken is just boiled chicken--looks white*--that's chopped, not cut, not sliced, to pieces. Easy. And yet not. The easy part is in the boiling but the hard part is getting a chicken good enough to cook this way. The chicken has to be mature (at least 4 months old) and fed on a diet of corn and not processed commercial feed.

The younger generation (to me, that's anyone under 35) has a very different standard for white chopped chicken. Because of Hainan chicken rice, which is made with cheap farmed broilers that are about 8 weeks old, many younger people who have never eaten home-reared mature chickens prefer farmed chicken. They have grown up eating tender, slippery-smooth meat and skin and they don't mind the bland taste and mushy texture of farmed chickens. They don't realise that the savory taste of the chicken comes from the chicken rice sauce and not the chicken. Chicken rice sauce is a blend of soy sauce, oil and msg.

Those of us who grew up eating home-reared chicken search and long for the taste of a home-grown broiler fed on corn. Some may even remember the rare capon (yim gai), a castrated rooster reared specially for CNY. A capon is another class above the mature home-reared broilers. Castrated roosters need to be reared for as long as 7 to 9 months but because they are castrated, they grow big without growing tough and fat deposit is minimal compared to a hen of that age. It is rare to find a castrated rooster now because the skills in castrating a rooster is lost and it is uneconomical to raise a capon because it takes 7 to 9 months, compared to 4 months for a home-reared broiler and 56 days for farmed broilers.

Mature corn-fed chicken is utterly different from the chickens fed on processed feed. Even the color of the meat and skin is different, the home-reared chickens having a shiny yellow skin and pink healthy meat while farmed chickens have white flesh and meat. I would never cook white chopped chicken with a farmed chicken. I go to the ends of the town in search of home-reared chicken if I want to cook white chopped chicken. Home-reared chicken is so special that if you ask the seller how to cook the chicken, she'll without hesitation tell you to boil it. She'll protest in horror if you mention that you'll roast or braise her home-grown chicken. The point is, as any cook will tell you, the better and fresher the quality of an ingredient, the less fuss should be made in cooking it.

In Hong Kong (and the southern part of China, I think), white chopped chicken is served with a ginger and spring onion dip. My parents have always added soy sauce to this ginger-spring onion dip. I used to wonder why my friends' moms and the restaurants in Hong Kong don't serve their ginger-spring onion dips with soy sauce too. I still don't know anyone who does the dip my parents' way. I prefer the dip with soy sauce because it does taste better than with plain salt. In the last few years, I've learnt to add 'sand ginger' to the dip too, a tip from my friend L who gave me a sand ginger plant. Sand ginger has a stronger, different scent than ordinary ginger and perks up the dip beautifully. Two other dips I tend to like eating my plain boiled chicken with are oyster sauce and chili-lime sauce.


Sand ginger grows well in sandy soils and my soil isn't sandy so the ginger is knotty instead of bulbous.


Ginger spring onion dip with salt.


Ginger spring onion dip with soy sauces.

Forget about soaking your home-reared boiled chicken in cold water, as done with Hainan chicken rice chicken. Plain boiled chicken is NOT Hainan chicken. I've learnt that with a 4 or 5 month-old chicken, no matter how long you soak the chicken in, it'll never have the slippery smooth texture of a farmed chicken. It shouldn't. You are to enjoy the sweet, flavorful, wonderful aromatic taste of mature corn-fed chicken in all its meaty, oily, tough glory. You are to chew on the meat, even eat the thick slippery skin and sip the soup the chicken was boiled in and be reminded that the Chinese sure know how to cook well, even if it's just boiled chicken. And if you haven't eaten a real home-reared mature chicken, in my opinion, you have no idea what you are missing.

Don't serve boiled chicken like you would roasted chicken. It needs to be chopped, bones and all, and served with rice. Just in case you have leftovers, sprinkle the chicken with plenty of coarse salt and if like, you can add some Chinese sao xin wine or even brandy. Cover with cling film and store in the fridge. The next day, you can re-heat by steaming or leave it to room temperature. That would be xen ji, salted chicken. I am drooling.

*If you haven't been in the sun and your skin is pale, you'll very likely be labelled a "white chopped chicken".

White Chopped Chicken (feeds 6-8)

1 whole home-reared chicken, at least 2.5 kg with skin on

1. Boil a pot of water. It's good to get a pot that the chicken can just fit into. If the pot's too big, you need a lot of water and the stock will be too diluted for soup.

2. When the water boils, put the chicken in breast-side down. The water should just about cover the chicken. Cover pot. When the water comes to a boil again, lower the heat until the water just simmers gently with low bubbles (boiling the chicken will make it tough). For a chicken of 2 kg, boil for about 10 to 15 minutes, for a 2.5 kg, about 12 to 20 minutes. If, unfortunately, your chicken is younger, then reduce the time by 5 minutes. Switch the fire off and let chicken sit, covered, in the water for about 45 minutes. I use a glass pot so the heat is retained for a long time.

3. Remove the chicken and either a) soak it in a large bowl of ice cold water for 10 minutes to tighten the skin so that it has a nice firm bite b) let cool unsoaked. Chop by first jointing the legs, the wings and the breast, then chop these into smaller pieces. You need a very sharp heavy Chinese cleaver to do a good job.

Serve chopped chicken with this dip:

Ginger Spring Onion Dip
fresh ginger, about 30 to 40 g
a small piece of sand ginger, if available
2-3 stalks of spring onions
1 t salt or 2 T light soy sauce (I like Maggi's) + 1 T dark soy sauce
3 T oil
a few drops of sesame oil if like

1. Scrape the skin off the ginger. The traditional way to mince ginger is to smash it with the flat side of the cleaver and then use the thick blade of the cleaver (the upper side) to mince the ginger finely. This way, the ginger gets minced and smashed at the same time. If you use the sharp side of the cleaver, you'll get minced but hard bits of ginger.

You can use the mortar and pestle but the juice will be pounded out from the ginger.

Cut the spring onions finely. Put ginger and spring onions into a small bowl. Add the salt if using. Some restaurants sneakily add msg too.

2. Heat the oil up until very hot. Drop a small piece of ginger into the oil and if it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready. Pour the hot oil over the spring onions and ginger. If not using salt, add the soy sauces now. Add sesame oil if using. Stir well.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Abalone & Kai Lan

abalone kailan09
Abalone and kai lan, a classic Cantonese banquet dish.

Cantonese cooking is loved for the freshness of the ingredients and the light and uncomplicated way the ingredients are cooked to bring out their best flavors and texture. There's hardly any braising or heavy use of soy sauce or condiments because the best and freshest ingredients are used. Most dishes are given a quick stir fry with the addition of salt and superior stock that has been brewed for hours in the restaurant, if it's a respectable restaurant that doesn't rely on msg. Abalone kai lan is one of those classic Cantonese dishes. Although abalone kailan is a simple dish to cook, it is not an easy dish to cook well because the flavor is subtle as minimal ingredients are used so that the flavor of the abalone is not masked.

When I was a kid, abalone and kai lan was a regular dish at wedding banquets and CNY dinners but now I've never been to a wedding banquet where abalone is served. That isn't surprising considering that a can of abalone is about RM250/US$70. Fresh or frozen local abalone is cheaper but will never give the same taste, flavor and texture as canned abalone. I love the flavor and taste of canned abalone and one day I want to eat abalone like 'abalone kings' do: braised in sauce and served whole, like a steak, washed down with a good white wine. Cut with a knife and fork of course. Meantime, it's still cheaper to slice abalone thinly and share with the family. I love this dish. It's such a special treat.

There are many brands of abalone out there, among them Skylight and New Moon. You may pay more for the established brands but there's a less likelihood of getting cut up little abalones or more liquid than abalone in the can. Shop around too, the prices can vary.

The best way to serve canned abalone is plain, in its own liquid and on a bed of veggies, usually kai lan. Never waste it in soups; for soups, use fresh abalone. Some of you might prefer a stronger flavor and add oyster sauce to the dish but I think that when you eat something this expensive, you should taste the authentic, original flavor.

Yan, as you've requested, this one's for you.

p.s. and it's "a-ba-lo-ne" not "a-ba-lone", "mas-car-po-ne" not "mas-car-pone". Thank you.

abalone kailan10
Abalone and kai lan, paler because I forgot to add the light soy sauce.

Abalone & Kai Lan

1 can abalone
2 bunches short stemmed kai lan*
2 heaped T cornflour + 1/3 cup superior chicken stock
salt & pepper & pinch of fine sugar
1/2 t light soy sauce for color and flavor, if like

optional: 2 T premium oyster sauce & sesame oil, or 2 T evaporated milk

*a Chinese veg related to the broccoli. If not available, use broccolini (result of a cross between broccoli and kai lan) or Chinese choy sum.

1. Keep the liquid from the can for the sauce. Slice the abalone thinly, about 1/4 cm. Too thick and it will need strong chewing, too thin and you can't taste the abalone. Make sure to keep the slices in order, like the abalone is still whole, so that they will look neat on the plate later. The best way is to keep the sliced abalone in a bowl just big enough to hold it in shape. Usually I'd keep the abalone warm in the bowl in my rice pot (in which the rice is cooked and kept warm), just to heat the abalone through. You can steam it over low boiling water too, just to keep warm. However, if you don't mind the slices all mixed up, then don't keep them warm in the rice pot or steamer.

Trim the hard stems, if any, off the kai lan.

2. Boil a large pot of water, add 1 tsp salt and 2 T veg oil and blanche the veg in 2 or 3 batches quickly. You can plunge the cooked veg in cold water to stop the cooking. I don't because I undercook them and they are still green and crunchy. Drain well (important so that the water will not dilute the sauce later) and arrange on a serving plate. You can drizzle some premium oyster sauce over the veg now for more taste if like but I don't.

Arrange the abalone slices over the veg, making sure they fan out so that each piece will get some sauce. If you prefer to cook the abalone than steam or keep them warm in step 1, you can add the abalone in the next step when cooking the sauce. This way the abalone will not look as pretty but will taste better because there's more sauce coating.

3. There are 3 sauces you can choose to make: a) plain abalone sauce. Mix the cornflour and chicken stock and add it to the abalone liquid, stirring well over medium heat until thickened. You can add 1/2 t light soy sauce for color and taste b) milky abalone sauce. Same as a) but add 2 tablespoons of evaporated milk but no light soy sauce c) same as a) but add oyster sauce and sesame oil.

Season sauce with salt, sugar and pepper and pour over the abalone and veggies. Serve immediately.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Kuih Makmur


These are the prettiest kuih bangkit (left) that I've ever seen. I just can't imagine making each one of them so perfectly, with overlapping crimped petals. Each one is smaller than my upper thumb. I find kuih bangkit too dry although I love their coconut flavor. But kuih makmur are full of butter, so full that they can hardly hold their shape and need to be protected by paper cases.



Nee's kuih lapis look machine-made because the layers are evenly thick, parallel and straight. But more than that, they taste absolutely divine.

Nee's husband Greg brought me two jars of her kuih momo (that's what they call kuih makmur in Sarawak apparently) and kuih bangkit and two large slabs of lapis (layer) cake, in sanja flavor and mocha flavor, when he was here on business just before CNY. The kuih makmur (prosperity cookies in Malay) and bangkit have long dissipated into my cells but I still have the kuih lapis for special occasions.

Last Sat, CL brought some excellent Italian prosciutto and smoked Dutch cheese from Brisbane, Phyllis brought the French wine and I contributed Nee's Sarawak lapis cake, sparingly.

Although I followed Nee's recipe for the kuih momo, my momo cookies somehow didn't taste as good as Nee's. It could be the butter or the fact that I couldn't shape them as round or as small as Nee. You do need to make them small because the high amount of butter can be a bit much. But friends who ate my kuih makmur and not Nee's couldn't compare them and they loved my kuih makmur, some asking if I could sell them a few jars of the kuih. It's quite a bit of work shaping the kuih and putting them in their little cases so I prefer that you make your own, and here's the recipe.

Making the kuih makmur dough is easy and I love this recipe because I've always disliked how kuih makmur are so delicate and crack up even at the slightest touch. They make me feel like a klutz and I don't like having to pick them up tenderly and how they break up the second I pop them into my mouth. I always think when I eat too-delicate kuih makmur that it's like eating powder. All that delicateness is exactly why kuih makmur is loved by their lovers so I'm the odd one out. Nee's kuih makmur have just the right level of delicateness--they don't break up at the slightest touch. They last until you put them in your mouth and a teeny bit of pressure will break them up. The secret to the delicateness is in 1) the amount of butter to flour used, and Nee's recipe has less butter to flour than most recipes 2) baking the cookies a little bit longer or shorter. Undercooking the cookies would make them lighter in color and very delicate and slightly over baking them gives a better flavor and firmer texture. However, I burnt a batch of cookies so do be careful. But the best thing about Nee's kuih makmur is that they are full of buttery flavor and the level of sweetness is just right. She used glucose for the coating, which gives a delightful coolness to the mouth. I used a combination of both glucose and icing sugar because I had both in the fridge and also because I wanted the traditional thick white snowy look.


Nee's momo cookie on the left. My first batch of cookies (on the right) were twice as big as Nee's and very uneven. The second batch (middle) yielded smaller cookies but still uneven rather than round. Ah well.

If you've never eaten kuih makmur before, I highly recommend that you make a batch today. This recipe only calls for 3 ingredients. No eggs, no milk powder, no sugar other than that for coating. Bookmark this, print this, make this.

Nee's Kuih Makmur (60 to 80 kuih)

250 g good quality butter*, melted (I used unsalted Anchor butter)
350 g plain flour**
glucose or icing sugar (confectioner's sugar) or mixture to coat

small paper cases

* I read in Nee's blog that ghee is commonly used instead of melted butter. In a recent issue of Saveur, I read that ghee is clarified butter or brown butter. That is good news because I made brown butter for making financiers and I love the intense nutty buttery taste. So if you have ghee, do use that.

**replace about 50-80 g with milk powder if you want the milk powder flavor.

1. Over medium heat, stir fry flour without any oil until fragrant and you can see a light tint of brown, about 6 min or 10 min under low heat. Set aside to cool. Sift into a bowl.

2. Melt butter and slowly pour into the centre of the flour. Mix and knead well.

3. Shape into tiny round balls (Nee's were about 2 cm in diameter, a bit too small for KK standards (we have bigger mouths?) so I think 2.2 cm diameter is just right), put on a greased baking tray and bake for 20 - 30 min (depending on the size of the kuih and your oven heat, bake until the balls are cooked through and the bottom very slightly light brown) at 160-170 C.

4. Cool slightly and coat (drop them into the sugar in batches) with the icing sugar or glucose. Place each kuih into a small paper case and when cool, store in a jar.

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